By Bob Allen
The pastor of a prominent Southern Baptist church in Tennessee for three decades resigned abruptly March 6 because of a leadership dispute with the congregation’s four-member elder board.
Rick White, 63, pastor of The People’s Church in Franklin, Tenn., for 33 years, announced at the end of his sermon March 8 that he had verbally agreed to the elders to step down but then reconsidered. He asked the congregation for a vote of confidence in his leadership.
That portion of the service is edited out of video and audio posted on the church website, but White reportedly told a capacity audience that church elders the previous week held a series of meetings without him and that they had been given misinformation which led to “fear, frustration and speculation.”
All four elders were present March 8, and one rose to speak on their behalf. The elder reportedly said there is no issue with the pastor’s preaching or his pastoral skills, but the board was dissatisfied with White’s management style in his daily direction of the staff. He said the biggest problem was what they viewed as “insubordination” to the elder board.
According to one report, an “overwhelming majority” stood in support of the pastor, “with cheers and jubilation,” and some also stood in favor of the elders’ recommendation to accept White’s resignation.
The next day White met with the elders and their legal counsel and was advised Sunday’s vote was in violation of the church constitution and his agreement to resign was still in effect.
In an open letter on the church website, White described his resignation as “final and absolute,” and urged the congregation “to move forward without distraction.”
“Stay committed to one another and to your church,” he said. “This is how family operates during hard seasons of life. Do not be divided and ‘choose a side.’ The cause of the gospel and the kingdom of God must be the only side we ever choose.”
The action led to resignations of White’s two sons-in-law: Derek Jones as “kid’s pastor” since 2007 and Matt Roden as student pastor at the church’s Franklin campus.
Under White’s leadership The People’s Church, formerly known as First Baptist Church, has grown from about 300 members in downtown Franklin to a nearby 65-acre campus. A second campus lies in the growing community of Spring Hill, just south of the Nashville suburb. According to the church website, the combined membership of the two sites is about 5,000.
Traditionally Southern Baptist churches have practiced a “congregational” polity, meaning that business decisions like membership, leadership and doctrine are determined by vote of the whole congregation. In recent decades, however, some megachurches have moved toward a model giving the pastor more authority in hiring and firing in consultation with a smaller personnel committee.
Some Southern Baptist churches influenced by a renewed emphasis on Calvinist doctrine, meanwhile, have switched to a “plurality of elders” to discern as a group God’s will in matters of “church discipline” to correct wayward members.
Reactions to White’s resignation on social media ranged from the view that while gifted in many ways, White’s dealing with staff members when things didn’t go his way was a problem that should have been addressed long ago, to the whole thing was a hasty and unnecessary decision by an elder board out of touch with the will of the congregation.
White refused to go into details in an interview with The Tennessean, citing only “administrative differences.”
White, a graduate of Samford University who received the master of divinity degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., served 10 years on the Southern Seminary board of trustees.
In early 1993 he and six other members of a search committee for a successor to retiring president Roy Honeycutt unanimously agreed on the name of 33-year-old Albert Mohler, at the time a Baptist journalist working as editor of the Christian Index in Georgia.
White was the first chairman of the board of trustees under Mohler’s leadership, and he is the only trustee chairman to have served three terms.
During the Sunday morning worship service March 15, Elder Dave Johnson acknowledged mixed feelings that church members have about all that has transpired.
“We are resolved that God has not been taken by surprise because of the events of the past week, and we are confident that he is with us still in the future and has a hope for all of us,” Johnson said. “We’re asking you to walk by faith together during these days, to see what God will do to glorify himself and to grow us.”